After being bogged down by operational obstacles during the summer high season of 2012, United Airlines is ensuring its front-line employees are armed with the necessary tools to navigate customers through the inevitable irregular operations that are a mainstay of the airline business.
Merger integration challenges triggered operational disruptions that resulted in United’s on-time-performance plummeting 10 percentage points year-on-year in July 2012 to 64%. As a result, a number of the carrier’s most high-yielding passengers opted to travel on United’s rivals, and since that time the airline has been working to win back the loyalty of those premium passengers.
Part of United’s strategy to ensure it delivers a positive experience to all its customers is a training scheme the airline has undertaken dubbed “It’s Our Job”. All of the carrier’s flight attendants and front-line service agents are participating in customer service training, and roughly 75% of 48,000 staff have completed the coursework.
At the same time the carrier is offering employees incentives – quarterly bonuses– to meet customer satisfaction targets and holding staff accountable for providing good customer service, United CEO Jeff Smisek recently stated. “For too long we have not done that [held employees accountable], and we will beginning in the fourth quarter of this year,” he remarked.
Recognising that customer service is a “differentiator” Smisek explains United is focussed on delivering consistently positive service, “especially when things don’t go right”, referencing irregular operations.
Alongside the training and incentives United is supplying employees to deliver on its customer service commitments its CEO believes the Panasonic eXConnect Ku-band satellite connectivity being installing on a sizeable portion of the carrier’s fleet should help ease the stress irregular operations create for customers and employees. “To the extent we can get more information to the customer, direct contact with the customer…in the air to let them know what’s going on and we de-stress that,” Smisek concludes.
Back on the ground Smisek believes the emphasis United is placing on customer service training is producing results in the number of compliments the carrier is receiving and net promoter score performance, which United states has improved significantly since the operational meltdowns last summer.
However, recent data released by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) for the month of April 2013 show that among the US major carriers United recorded the highest number of complaints with respect to customer service at 41. American Airlines posted the second highest at 34, followed by Delta with 15 customer service complaints, US Airways with 10, Alaska Airlines at four and Southwest Airlines with three complaints. Given those statistics, it will be interesting to scrutinise the data once the accountability measures United is instituting for its front-line employees take hold in late 2013.
An emphasis on improving customer service is taking on a new level of importance as the US industry moves into a new era that will feature three major full service carriers, Southwest Airlines, hybrids such as Alaska and JetBlue and ultra low cost carriers Spirit and Allegiant.
Once the integration of American and US Airways is complete, the three major carriers will offer similar network breadth and schedules, which means product and customer service will become distinguishing competitive elements among those carriers. “Service levels in a consolidated industry matter,” Delta president Ed Bastian recently concluded. US Airways CEO and future chief of the merged “new” American has stated the carrier intends to “work more to get your business away from Delta or United”.
Obviously the new American’s competitors take that “game on” declaration seriously, and United at least on paper seems committed to delivering improved front-line customer service. But the proof lies in the experience of the road warriors and infrequent travellers alike. Have you seen a marked improvement in United’s customer service? The latest data would suggest no.
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(Photo main courtesy of AirTeamImages.)